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Posts Tagged ‘class’

Class in American Literature

I’m not a literary expert, so I have to take this essay by Gerald Howard at face value. And, it’s an excellent essay, discussing how discussions of class used to be common in American fiction, but no longer are. Here are some excerpts:

Work—especially the sort of work that gets your hands dirty and that brands you as a member of the working class—no longer seems germane to our novelists’ apprenticeships and, not coincidentally, is no longer easy to find in the fiction they produce. Whether one finds this scarcity something to worry about or simply a fact to be noted probably says a lot about one’s class origins and prejudices.

The dignity of work and its social efficacy is one of the core tenets of our democratic creed. In the absence of inherited social privilege deriving from European feudalism, it would be the willingness to work to tame a wild continent that would define, in Hector St. John Crèvecoeur’s phrase, “the American, this new man.” Yet if all men are created equal, as our Declaration of Independence so ringingly declares, all men are equally defined by the social class they are born into and often seek to rise above—and nothing more inexorably marks one’s class as the sort of work one does. This disjunction between the gospel of equality to which we pay lip service and the reality of social distinctions that we cannot escape makes the whole subject of class in America a tense and touchy one. Simply to bring up the subject in any context, let alone a literary one, feels discomfiting, as if some taboo were being broken or doubt being cast on our most cherished ideals (or illusions) about ourselves…

In any case, these blinders are of relatively recent vintage, as the postwar economic boom and the rise of a vast middle class has made it possible, even mandatory, to view American society as homogenous, socially fluid, and largely unstratified. Charles McGrath observes, however, in that same Times series, that “in the old days, when we were more consumed by social class, we were also more honest about it. There is an un-American secret at the heart of American culture: for a long time, it was preoccupied by class.” Work and class have certainly been abiding and central preoccupations of American literature for as long as we have had writing worthy of the name…

As we’ve noted, the path to literary recognition these days runs through our most prestigious and expensive universities, and these are neither welcoming nor, increasingly, affordable places for the children of the working class. The price barriers speak for themselves, but it is the atmosphere of class privilege and a culture of secret handshake-like assumptions that may offer an even more demoralizing obstacle to the aspiring working-class writer…

I know that sounds pretty bleak when it comes to what I’ve called literary democracy. And yet the vitality and toughness of working-class life has a way of producing voices that demand to be heard. Fiction, of all the arts, is the one that has the strongest allegiance to a realistic depiction of the world as it is, however advanced the formal means by which that representation is achieved…

A literature stratified by its subject matter and its practitioners risks become a mandarin exercise, and that would be, well, unAmerican. It behooves all of us involved in the enterprise of American fiction to make sure it doesn’t happen.

Much of the essay that I left out offers a survey of use of class in fiction. It’s a really interesting and welcome change of pace, at least for this reader. The budding political economist in me wants to point out that there must be positive feedback loops between literature and our economic structures, but I think the implications of that idea are obvious enough, so I’ll leave it be.

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“It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”        –George Carlin

That quotation best sums up the last 3o years. Baby-boomers are finding that they will never be able to retire, and college students are moving back in with their parents. All are mired in mountains of consumer debt or student loans. This is the situation that Edward Luce sees, in his article “The crisis of middle-class America.”  What is clear is that (mainstream) economists do not have a good explanation of why the middle class living standards have stagnated over the past three decades. It’s about time we start looking at more relevant data than the stock market and GDP, as Luce cites:

The slow economic strangulation of the Freemans and millions of other middle-class Americans started long before the Great Recession, which merely exacerbated the “personal recession” that ordinary Americans had been suffering for years. Dubbed “median wage stagnation” by economists, the annual incomes of the bottom 90 per cent of US families have been essentially flat since 1973 – having risen by only 10 per cent in real terms over the past 37 years. That means most Americans have been treading water for more than a generation. Over the same period the incomes of the top 1 per cent have tripled. In 1973, chief executives were on average paid 26 times the median income. Now the multiple is above 300.

Only once we start looking at the relevant economic data can we begin to address the structural problems that have been rewarding the few at the expense of the majority.

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When economists cheerlead GDP figures, they do so based on the supposedly positive judgment that growth implies consumption gains, which means that people are better off. There’s good reason to be skeptical of this claim, even leaving aside distributional concerns. Robert Reich, in discussing China’s currency announcement, speaks well to the issue of a production versus consumption economy:

Here’s the awkward truth that’s not openly discussed on either side of the Pacific: Both the United States and China are capable of producing far more than their own consumers are capable of buying. In the United States, the root of the problem is a growing share of total income going to the richest Americans.

Inequality is also widening in China, but the root of the problem there is a declining share of fruits of economy growth going to average Chinese and increasing share going to capital investment.

Both our societies are threatened by the disconnect between production and consumption. In China, the threat is civil unrest. In the United States, it is a prolonged jobs and earnings recession which, when combined with widening inequality, could create a political backlash.

Unfortunately, political divisions tend to obscure the real class divisions here in the US. Absent some key distractions, I think the working class would prefer a society in which production implies consumption, while the capitalist class prefers a society in which production implies profit. Political bickering gets in the way of exposing this key difference, and seems to make consumption less virtuous than production. Worry not, though- consumption is happening, just not for the masses. Will China prove to be different, as citizens demand a higher level of consumption still far below what we have in the US?

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When I attended the fiscal sustainability counter-conference, much of the discussion was theoretical and technical and avoided normative or political conjecture. All of the panelists were aware of the political landscape for deficity dovery, and were even more aware of the implications of deficit reduction for the poor and unemployed. However, until reading Rick Wolff’s latest, I don’t think I really grasped the political meaning of the deficit debate and how skewed it is.

In today’s class-divided societies, classes differ over what governments should do and who should pay the taxes. Governments in such societies often turn to borrowing — which produces national debts — as ways to defer and postpone the political problems of resolving class struggles focused on the state…

Employers and employees struggle everywhere over what activities the government should and should not perform.  Employers want governments to support and enhance the profits they seek (build and secure the transportation and communication infrastructures they want, educate their workers, protect their markets, enforce their contracts in courts, etc.).  Employees, in contrast, want the government to support their incomes, families, and standards of living…

The two sides’ relative strengths — their organizations and resources — usually determine the patterns of government expenditures and what portion of the tax bill each side pays.  Rarely employers and employees agree on these contentious issues…

Governments fear the political costs of going so far in placating one side that they risk being ousted from power by the other side.  Borrowing thus eases their problems at least temporarily…

Of course, lenders to governments come chiefly from employers, not employees.  Lenders are, of course, complicit in building up national debts because they collect most of the interest payments from the borrowing governments.  From the employers’ perspective, the national debt often looks like an attractive lesser evil…

Lenders to governments understand that class struggles postponed may thereby be sharpened…

The lenders therefore began refusing to lend any more to Greece (or even to roll over debt coming due) or they demanded much higher interest rates.  In effect, lenders demanded that the Greek government either tax employees more or else cut government spending on employees to free up money to service Greece’s national debt…

The moral of the story of class struggles and national debts is this: government borrowing is capitalism’s very employer-partisan way out from a political dead end…Americans will confront the same basic situation as the immense and growing US national debt brings its lenders to a similar crossroads.

There’s a key difference between Wolff and the deficit dove crowd- the doves, drawing on Modern Monetary Theory, believe that there aren’t limits to government’s borrowing capabilities, at least not for advanced economies. Wolff, however, assumes that the deficit, and the debt in turn, will eventually reach a breaking point, even in the US, the reserve currency issuer. I’m not in a place to judge who is right here. However, I really like Wolff’s idea about viewing deficits as a way of deferring class struggle until the inevitable clash. It mirrors his argument about how consumer borrowing delayed class struggle over stagnating wages, and I think, helps us understand the present political economy.

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Moore on Moore

No subliminal messaging there, just some pun fun. Michael Moore’s movie, Capitalism, A Love Story, is premiering in theaters everywhere tomorrow. Naomi Klein interviewed him for The Nation, and one exchange struck me.

NK: All right. Let’s talk about the film some more. I saw you on Leno, and I was struck that one of his first questions to you was this objection–that it’s greed that’s evil, not capitalism. And this is something that I hear a lot–this idea that greed or corruption is somehow an aberration from the logic of capitalism rather than the engine and the centerpiece of capitalism…

Why is it so hard to see the connection, and how are you responding to this?

MM: Well, people want to believe that it’s not the economic system that’s at the core of all this. You know, it’s just a few bad eggs. But the fact of the matter is that, as I said to Jay [Leno], capitalism is the legalization of this greed.

Greed has been with human beings forever. We have a number of things in our species that you would call the dark side, and greed is one of them. If you don’t put certain structures in place or restrictions on those parts of our being that come from that dark place, then it gets out of control. Capitalism does the opposite of that. It not only doesn’t really put any structure or restriction on it. It encourages it, it rewards it.

I’m asked this question every day, because people are pretty stunned at the end of the movie to hear me say that it should just be eliminated altogether. And they’re like, “Well, what’s wrong with making money? Why can’t I open a shoe store?”

And I realized that [because] we no longer teach economics in high school, they don’t really understand what any of it means.

The point is that when you have capitalism, capitalism encourages you to think of ways to make money or to make more money. And the judges never could have gotten the kickbacks had the county not privatized the juvenile hall. But because there’s been this big push in the past twenty or thirty years to privatize government services, take it out of our hands, put it in the hands of people whose only concern is their fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders or to their own pockets, it has messed everything up.

I don’t disagree with any of this exchange, but I think it falls short of offering an insightful critique of capitalism. To be insightful, there would need to be some discussion of class, i.e. “who is in a position to make greedy decisions,” or “who is almost always affected by these greedy decisions?”

Immediately after this exchange, they broach the idea of democratically-run workplaces, which are the borderline-cliched favorite alternatives of many on the left. Even that brief discussion does not seem to take the class issue head on. I wouldn’t think Moore is afraid of the accusation that he is engaging in class warfare, so what’s the downside of speaking on these terms?

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“Class War”

No, not talking about Notre Dame this time (although there does appear to be a war for the classrooms). [End hyperbole]. This article is the latest from Rick Wolff in MRZine, in which he argues that capitalists have been engaging in a class war since the 1970s (and have been pretty successful):

Across the same 30-year period, the productivity of labor kept rising: the average worker produced ever more output for the average employer to sell.  Thus, capitalists’ revenues rose relative to workers’ wages.Capitalists used those rising revenues to intensify class war on US workers.  First, capitalists weakened their adversaries by lending one portion of their rising revenues back to US workers as high interest “consumer loans.” [...]

Second, capitalists used their rising revenues to finance (1) the relocation of production and other facilities outside the US and (2) computerization of production…

Third, capitalist boards of directors used another portion of rising revenues to raise salaries and bonuses for upper-level managers (including themselves), people who contribute significant sums to politicians favoring conservative, pro-business laws and regulations…Official politics shifted rightward even when mass popular opinion, when polled, clearly pointed elsewhere.  Politicians understood that their careers and policies could not survive the money flood that capitalist corporations and rich upper-management personnel could pour into campaigns against them.  They reacted to facts that workers increasingly did not learn about, let alone finance and participate in, politics (emphasis his)…

Thus, while majorities supported ending involvement in Iraq, large US forces remain there.  A majority now opposes the Afghanistan occupation, but the administration proceeds.  A majority favored government help for ordinary people alongside helping banks, insurance companies, etc., in the economic crisis, yet we have no real solution for the foreclosure disaster and no public employment program for the millions laid off by private employers…

Yet this class war — focused on shifting income, wealth, and power from workers to capitalists — cannot take from workers their most powerful weapon.  Workers produce and deliver to their adversaries the resources then used against them — that difference between their productivity for employers and their wages from employers.  The dilemma of capitalism is this contradiction: the workers that capitalists hire, exploit, and struggle to dominate are the same workers on whom they depend for the means to hire, exploit, and dominate.

Class war flows from capitalism’s deeply embedded structure that pits capitalists against workers…But class war was not only a result, it also helped cause real wages to stop rising in the first place…

In times of prosperity as in times of crisis, capitalism entails class war.  Only system change will end that.  Capitalists have fewer reasons to change the system.  Workers remain, as always, in position to make the break.  Meanwhile, they suffer the consequences of not doing so.

It is not uncommon these days to read liberals in the blogosphere and op-ed pages decrying the fact that corporate interests have captured reform (health care reform, in particular). For whatever reason, this discussion rarely occurs on class terms. OK, that was a dodge…it’s not “for whatever reason,” but instead because it is anathema in our society to discuss any issue in terms of class. Even reference to a group of people as “capitalists” is rarely seen. Is class war the root of our political and economic problems? If so, what are the consequences of nobody in the mainstream talking about it? And finally, when will this veil be pierced?

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Speaking 2 weeks ago at the Chautauqua Institution, Michael Novak hold forth on the Ethics of Capitalism in a Friedman-esque fashion. Of course, he doesn’t come off as nearly that intelligent, at least not in the FORA.tv editor’s selected highlight clip, in which he talks about the rich-poor gap in response to a question from the audience or a panelist or somebody with a brain (I’d like to watch the rest tonight, but there are no promises in the blogosphere).

He makes a few stupid arguments in this particular clip, which you should watch for yourself because no transcript is available and I have to ungenerously paraphrase.

1) The common good does not require equality, just that the bottom are continuously moving up, and this is happening, so we’ve struck the common good.

The nice hidden premise in here is that the bottom (and middle, I suppose), have been moving up, so therefore we’ve reached the common good. This second premise, however, is false, and the stagnation of real wages has been documented thoroughly and even targeted as a key cause of the economic crisis.

2) Simple arithmetic implies that the gap will always be growing; even if the rich only grow by 1% and the poor grow by 10%, the gap will increase.

Who actually talks about the absolute gap? Maybe we should, because it would make our inequality growth look even starker. Nevertheless, I’ve always seen it referred to in ratios and relative terms, e.g. the top 1% received x% of national income, the CEO earned X times the lowest-paid worker, etc. This argument is simply ridiculous. Maybe it’s just because he got caught off guard by the most predictable question he could’ve face in front of a responsible audience.

3) Talk of inequality is a sign of envy. Now I’m going to moralize about how immigrants stay off welfare and pull themselves out of poverty. Anyone can do it in 5 years. Also, children can pitch in. “Family socialism.”

Where to begin? First, I’m doubting the “responsibly audience” line, as the word “envy” brought tremendous applause. Second, America is no longer the economically mobile society that Novak envisions. Third, by bringing up the immigrant thing (which may not even be true), Novak predictably ignores that immigrants are less likely (I think) to be caught up in vicious social and economic cycles.

4) This is just an argument of political factions; I used to be on the other side, before I saw the light.

Sigh. Reducing a pressing problem to politics is all too common, but completely dodges the point. On second thought, there’s no way I could stomach 59 more minutes of this bullshit, so if somebody else wants to watch it and pick things out for the comments, I’d be happy to bump them up here.

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